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Serving Sri Lanka

This web log is a news and views blog. The primary aim is to provide an avenue for the expression and collection of ideas on sustainable, fair, and just, grassroot level development. Some of the topics that the blog will specifically address are: poverty reduction, rural development, educational issues, social empowerment, post-Tsunami relief and reconstruction, livelihood development, environmental conservation and bio-diversity. 

Monday, May 16, 2005

NGOs for peace, perks and profit

Daily News: 14/05/2005" By Lucien Rajakarunanayake

NGOs have been in the firing line for several years in Sri Lanka, largely because of the bad name earned by a large number of them. In a recent article in the Daily Mirror, Dr. Jehan Perera of the National Peace Council, says that NGOs are on the JVP's firing line today primarily due to their support for peace.

He takes us on a serpentine route in a mix of the differences within the Government, vis-...-vis the opposing views between the PA and the JVP on matters of fundamental importance; the JVP's alleged opposition to peace and a claim that the JVP's current hostility towards NGOs is because much of the resources for tsunami reconstruction is presently in the hands of the NGO sector.

He sees the JVP's current attitude to NGOs being due to a major shift from the past when the Government would have got the lion's share of foreign aid for relief and reconstruction etc. whereas today this is largely in the hands of the NGO sector. This is the writer's subjective interpretation which appears to have no basis for support.

That the JVP is at present more critical of NGO activity is unquestioned. However, it is not only the JVP that is being critical of NGOs. These criticisms have come from Ministers of Government other than from the JVP and also members of the public who have observed the functioning of many NGOs.

One fails to understand the logic of persons who believe that this channeling of relief funds through NGOs would be extremely upsetting to a Marxist party such as the JVP that believes in centralized resource allocation and decision making within itself alone.

The fact is the activities of several NGOs over the years have shown they are more concerned about perks and personal enrichment of key personalities than in their mandates to serve the needs of society.

Rapid increase
The Ministry of Finance too, concerned about the rapid increase in the number of NGOs since the tsunami, has imposed a high registration fee for new NGOs that wish to operate here.

It is also the declared policy of government to have more control and regulation over the activities of NGOs and their disbursement of funds. It was not any Marxist party in India that introduced the registration of NGOs and arrangements for proper accountability regarding funds.

The main question that arises is whether the persons who are said to be helped by these NGOs actually benefit from their work, or whether some NGOs have become conduits for large funding to promote the special agendas of these NGOs and to make huge payments to local and foreign personnel involved in these organizations?

We are not unaware of the large number of NGOs functioning here championing the cause of women's rights, liberation and empowerment.

However, with at least 500,000 of our women employed abroad, mainly in the Middle East, one sees little or no action by these NGOs to defend the rights and safety of these women who are placed in the most vulnerable situation.

Yet, demonstrations at Lipton Circus and other places to mark International Women's Day are an annual feature targeting the funds for the next project proposal on women's rights. This situation is common to many NGOs functioning here today in diverse areas of activity.

Post-tsunami activity
War and the peace process have provided NGOs considerable space to function.

The difficulties of access for government agencies and officials to areas of conflict have given the opportunity for NGOs to carry out functions for the benefit of the people in those areas. That this is done well by some dedicated NGOs is unquestioned.

But recent, post tsunami examples of NGO activity in particular, have given cause for concern, even among genuine NGO personnel. In such a context it is irrelevant whether it is the JVP or any others that criticize the activities of NGOs.

The example of the Tamil Rehabilitation Organization or TRO, which is banned in Australia as an LTTE front organization, known to be a direct channel for the LTTE funding, certainly gives cause for alarm bells to be sounded today about the activities of recalcitrant NGOs.

It is a smooth attempt to whitewash such activity by stating that their critics are against peace. On the contrary, the activities of NGOs such as the TRO tend to create doubt and suspicion in the minds of the average citizen about the so-called commitment of such organizations to bringing about a genuine peace.

Attempting to exacerbate divisions that exist within the Government, certainly not about the role of NGOs but on other issues, Jehan Perera refers to what Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar said in Geneva at the recent meeting with International NGOs. He says that "in the past the Foreign Minister has been a consistent proponent of protecting the government's sovereignty to the exclusion of all other parties."

He adds: "But in Geneva he is reported to have said that the government was prepared to give NGOs control over the reconstruction projects they chose to manage with their money, following initial planning approval by the government. He had also assured the NGOs present that the government would not micro-manage the projects."

At first reading it would appear that Minister Kadirgamar had sold out on the government's sovereignty. But, in fact it is not so, however much the NGO lobby would have liked it.

Whatever projects that are to be funded and managed at both the macro and micro level by NGOs are subject to initial planning approval by the Government, thus maintaining Sri Lankan sovereignty.

Friction and mistrust
It is strange that apologists of free rein to NGOs do not realize that their activities have caused much social friction and mistrust in the country.

As much as I am opposed to legislation controlling religious conversion, it is an undeniable fact that many evangelist NGOs who are here to help alleviate poverty, have spent greater effort at using poverty alleviation to convert persons of the Buddhist, Hindu and Christian beliefs to that of their own.

It is the work of these NGOs that has regrettably led to the government getting Cabinet approval for a Bill to outlaw unethical religious conversions.

NGOs are not bodies that have a special sanctity or ingrained honesty of purpose. Each NGO needs judgment on the work it does. It appears that NGOs such as the TRO do pose a threat to the security to the State, judging from the "ambulances" they have been found travelling in recently with the amount of money and type of equipment they carried.

There are many questions to be asked about the functioning of NGOs, before we separate the sheep from the goats. But asking such questions does not make anyone opposed to peace or properly handled post tsunami relief, reconstruction and rehabilitation.

Parliament being the supreme legislature of the country I fail to understand what is wrong in NGOs being subject to the scrutiny of a Select Committee of Parliament. This is something that genuine NGOs should be happy about.

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